Wednesday, May 30, 2012


You may remember her, wet-eyed and winsome, in Braveheart. Mel, kilted and blue in his role as William Wallace, enjoys a romantic interlude with her in between defeating the invading Sassenachs of Edward Longshanks.

Sophie Marceau (20th Century Fox)
In real life she would have had them both for breakfast.

Isabella never met William Wallace, and she certainly never had his child because she was about nine years old when he died. 

Like Sophie Marceau in the 1995 movie, she was beautiful, sophisticated and highly intelligent; but in character she was more like Mel’s Mad Max. In fact, she later become known as the She-Wolf.

She was born in 1295 into the royal family of the most powerful kingdom in Europe. The youngest daughter of Phillip le Bel (the handsome) of France, she arrived in England when she was twelve to be married off to Longshank’s son, Edward II.

Young Edward looked like a Plantagent king but he didn’t act like one; he preferred jigs to jousting and poetry to pig hunting. Edward was on the downlow - contemporary chroniclers referred to a ‘illicit and sinful union’ with his friend and adviser, Piers Gaveston. He even chose to sit next to him at their wedding rather than with his new bride. 

Edward and Gaveston ... and everyone else
She tolerated this; she was only twelve after all, and had no choice. The three lived out an uneasy truce until the King’s lover was murdered in 1312 in one of the ongoing feuds between the king and his barons.

In 1314, after Edward was humbled by the Scots at Bannockburn, she took up a more queenly role in the governance of the kingdom. But she soon had another rival, when Edward found that a noble named Hugh Despenser the Younger had become ... well indispensable.

The country descended into chaos with the King and the Despenser family pitted against the barons under Thomas of Lancaster. Isabella and Hugh detested each other, but Edward sided with his favourite. He confiscated all of his queen's lands, imprisoned her French staff and then her youngest children were taken away and placed in custody by the Despensers.

photograph: Chris McKenna
The situation came to a head when the King left her stranded at Tynemouth priory during another Scottish war, and the gutsy Isabella was forced, along with a group of squires from her personal retinue, to hold off the Scots while some of her knights commandeered a ship. It was a close call, and two of her ladies in waiting were killed in the fighting. Once aboard, Isabella then evaded the Flemish navy, and escaped.

Hell hath no fury.

Isabella went back to France in 1325 but instead of retiring to a nunnery to mutter about the perfidy of men, she took matters into her own hands. She began a passionate affair with an exile named Roger Mortimer - in fact, it’s said she already knew him, and that she sprang him from the Tower in 1523 after he’d been arrested by the Despensers.

This was a huge risk for her - female infidelity, even in the face of such provocations, was a very serious offence in medieval Europe. Their romance has been described as one of the great romances of the Middle Ages. It may have been - but the pillow talk was all about settling old scores.

Isabella and Mortimer returned to England in 1326 with a mercenary army, and defeated Edward in a lightning campaign. Edward and Hugh were arrested after they fled to Wales. Hugh Despenser was dispensed with in a very medieval manner. He was stripped and had Biblical verses about the evils of corruption and arrogance scrawled on his skin prior to his grisly execution (see the rather cheery illustration below.)

The king was invited to abdicate the throne and was then placed under house arrest at Berkeley Castle on the Welsh borders, where he later died trying to escape custody, as we would say in modern parlance. There is still much controversy over the circumstances surrounding his disappearance.

The queen then ruled as regent for her son, but even the She-Wolf could not protect herself against her own cub; five years later he came of age and took back the crown, and it was Mortimer’s turn on the gallows. 

Isabella survived the transition however, and retired from politics to spend more time with her family. She continued a lavish lifestyle at Castle Rising in Norfolk, doting on her grandchildren, one of whom was Edward, the Black Prince. She took to religion, continued to be a gregarious member of the court, and remained on good terms with her son.

This complex, courageous and indefatigable woman died an old lady in 1358, remaining an enigma until the end. She asked to be buried in her wedding dress and Edward's heart, which had been placed into a casket after his death thirty years before, was interred with her, at her request.

She remains one of the most remarkable women of medieval history; a true braveheart, in fact. 

See more history from Colin Falconer at LOOKING FOR MR GOODSTORY
From History and Women

Friday, May 25, 2012

Elizabeth Murray, Lady Tollemache, Duchess Lauderdale

Elizabeth Murray, Duchess Lauderdale 1628-1698
Whilst searching for a strong female protagonist from the 17th Century on whom to base my novel, I discovered one practically on my own doorstep. I lived literally round the corner to Ham House, a stunning red brick Jacobean mansion on the River Thames, the home of Elizabeth Murray, Lady Dysart and Duchess of Lauderdale. Her second husband, John Maitland, Duke of Lauderdale, was one of the infamous CABAL of King Charles II, and between them, this couple turned Ham House into a palace fit for their king.

Bishop Burnet, described by Elizabeth’s biographer, Doreen Cripps as ‘that spiteful old busybody’, left a sketch of her character coloured with his prejudice and personal malice.

She was a woman of great beauty, but of far greater parts. She had a wonderful quickness of apprehension, and an amazing vivacity in conversation. She had studied not only divinity and history, but mathematics and philosophy. She was violent in every thing she set about, a violent friend, but a much more violent enemy. She had a restless ambition, lived at a vast expense, and was ravenously covetous; and would have stuck at nothing by which she might compass her ends. She had blemishes of another kind, which she seemed to despise, and to take little care of the decencies of her sex.

Catherine Bruce Murray
Catherine Murray took seventeen-year-old Elizabeth and her three younger sisters to the exiled Court at Oxford during the winter of 1643/1644, where Charles I had fled after the Battle of Edgehill, where Elizabeth saw firsthand how difficult life had become for many followers of the king.

Elizabeth’s father, William Murray, Earl Dysart, was arrested for spying for the Royalist cause, acquitted after months in the Tower of London, but banished to Queen Henrietta Maria’s court outside Paris. Despite his dangerous disgrace, Elizabeth’s formidable mother, Catherine Bruce Murray, invited Cromwell to dine at Ham House when King Charles I was under house arrest at Hampton Court, a mere five miles downriver.

Elizabeth apparently charmed Oliver Cromwell with her wit and intelligence, and they remained in contact, even though during King Charles II’s exile in the 1650’s, Elizabeth was reputedly a member of The Sealed Knot carrying money and information to the exiled king.
Duke of Lauderdale

That meeting between the Royalist girl and the Colonel in Chief of the Roundhead army must have been a difficult one, for several attempts had been made by them to seize Ham House and the family's estate, threatening to leave them all homeless. There is no evidence that Elizabeth or her family were involved in the plan to help Charles I escape Hampton Court, but escape he did, and some of their friends were involved, including the Earl of Lauderdale, and yet no Murrays were arrested.

It was a tribute to Elizabeth's diplomacy, that when she pleaded with Cromwell for the life of John Maitland, Earl Lauderdale, captured after his participation in the Battle of Worcester in 1651, it surprised many when his sentence of death was commuted to imprisonment.

Elizabeth married Sir Lionel Tollemache 2nd Bart in 1648, a non-political Suffolk landowner who attracted neither Royalist or Parliamentary attention. The marriage was a successful one, and secured Ham House for Elizabeth, who bore him eleven children in twenty-two years, five of whom lived to adulthood.  Lionel died in 1669.

Lady Anne Lauderdale fled to Paris in 1671, apparently to distance herself from the burgeoning friendship between her husband and Elizabeth. Six weeks after Lady Anne's death the following year, London society was outraged when, John Maitland, Earl of Lauderdale and Lady Elizabeth Tollemache were married.

It wasn’t until her forties, when Elizabeth’s political manoeuvrings as Duchess Lauderdale were frowned upon, that she was rumoured to have been not only Earl Lauderdale's mistress when they were both married to other people, but also Oliver Cromwell's, and she was suspected of spying for both sides during the Interregnum:

She is Besse of my heart, she was Besse of old Noll;
She was once Fleetwood’s Besse, now she’s Bess of Atholle;
She’s Besse of the Church, and Besse of the State,
She plots with her tail, and her lord with his pate.
With a head on one side, and a hand lifted hie,
She kills us with frowning and makes us to die.

‘Royalist Rebel’, by Anita Seymour, a biographical novel of Elizabeth’s youth will be released in paperback by Pen and Sword books in early 2013.
From History and Women

Friday, May 18, 2012

A Child Bride's Nightmare

In keeping with my theme on child brides, here is the story of one ten year old girl and her mother who managed to fight back. It is inspirational. Enjoy!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Afghanistan Child Brides

The plight of Afghanistan women is heart-wrenching. The more we can share information and help the world know what is happening there, the more we can help bring Afghanistan women out of these ancient, horrific practices of abuse and death.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Bride Kidnapping

As a historical fiction author, I enjoy the research part of writing. Often, I stumble upon the most fascinating, sometimes abhorrent information. This happened when I was researching bride kidnapping in 10th century Europe. I was shocked to discover that bride kidnapping and child brides are still practices in numerous countries today. The plight of women in many cultures is disturbing. Following is a two part video on bride kidnapping in Krgyzstan.


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